Crypto Cowboy Binance Wants to Play By the Rules

April 15, 2019, 6:02 PM UTC
Binance CEO Changpeng "CZ" Zhao.
Binance CEO Changpeng "CZ" Zhao.
Courtesy of Binance

Binance came out of nowhere in 2017 to become the world’s biggest cryptocurrency exchange. Its explosive growth has been fueled by a strategy of avoiding the regulatory headaches that go with the conventional banking system, and focusing instead on the freewheeling world of crypto-to-crypto trading.

Now, Binance is wading into the world of government-issued money—raising the question of whether it can keep growing without getting singed by regulators. The latest sign of Binance’s new focus came last week when the company announced it would hire CipherTrace, a California-based business that helps companies and law enforcement trace suspicious cryptocurrency movements.

“This is inline with our aggressive expansion plan. We want to keep standards of anti-money laundering and compliance at a high level,” Samuel Lim, chief compliance officer at Binance, told Fortune.

Lim, whose background includes stints at global banks like Deutsche Bank and Barclays, added that Binance has already been working with other compliance firms, and that the company has long taken seriously issues like fraud and money laundering.

These efforts are likely to receive new scrutiny in coming months as Binance prepares to launch a so-called “fiat to crypto” gateway—allowing customers to trade traditional currencies for digital ones like Bitcoin—in Singapore, which will put it squarely in the grips of that country’s financial regulators.

Meanwhile, the company has also been promoting a new type of crypto fundraising known as “Initial exchange offerings.” These are a variation of initial coin offerings, which involve selling digital tokens to the general public, and were once wildly popular but fell out of favor amid regulatory disapproval. (The “exchange” variation involves Binance selecting a handful of token projects to conduct sales on the company’s “Launchpad” platform).

While Binance is confident that all of these activities are legal, others are not so sure. David Silver, a Florida-based attorney who has brought class action lawsuits against numerous cryptocurrency companies, believes Binance has been playing with fire.

“The crypto-to-crypto aspect helps hide what they’re doing and makes it harder for regulators to catch them. They’re going to need to legitimize because the world isn’t going to let them move massive amounts of money through countries in which they’re not regulated but have active users. That will eventually come to bite them in the ass,” said Silver.

For its part, Binance says it is has been careful to follow the law in every jurisdiction, including in the United States where regulators have targeted numerous crypto projects as illegal securities offerings. According to Lim, the company is not facing any legal trouble.

“We are not under any sort of investigation. But we work closely with law enforcement and governments worldwide. They write to us all the time,” he said.

More broadly, the regulatory question could become pivotal as Binance looks to consolidate its global marketshare. As trade publication Coindesk described in an effusive profile this month, Binance’s swift moving strategy helped it take the crown from one-time front-runner Coinbase, which pursued a compliance-focused strategy, but was slow to add assets and move into new markets.

Now, the competition between the two companies—whose relations Binance CEO Changpeng Zhao described to Fortune last year as very positive—is set to heat up as San Francisco-based Coinbase scrambles to catch up overseas, and as Binance becomes more mindful of compliance.

According to Lim, Binance is navigating the same sort of regulatory challenges as other fast-growing companies did before them.

“The message I hope you can put out is exchanges are trying their best,” he said. “It’s not something that happens overnight. Apple and PayPal did not get to where they are on day one. We’ve only been around two years but the investments we’ve made in compliance shows the seriousness we have to win the trust of financial institutions.”